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"If I lost here, I'd find it extremely difficult to be nominated."
DVD ReviewThe past decades have seen a fusing of the worlds of politics and entertainment, and both are covered more and more like sports: why pay attention to a candidate's inherent ideas and political philosophy, if you can just glance at the horserace, courtesy of the Zogby poll? Why entertain notions about the aesthetic value of a motion picture, when its opening weekend box-office receipts are printed on Monday morning, like a baseball box score? But it wasn't always this way, and Primary is a crucial document in the evolution both of national politics, and of the media's coverage of the same.
When Robert Drew, of Time Inc., finally got a camera that was sufficiently portable, in the early spring of 1960, he sought out the right story to cover first, and he found it: how would Senator John F. Kennedy's presidential campaign fare in the Midwest, specifically in the April 5th Wisconsin primary? For five days, Drew and his crew were granted unfettered access to the Kennedy camp, and this groundbreaking film was the result. The years since Kennedy's assassination have seen the young President nearly canonized, wrapped in the robes of Camelot; or vilified, as a Lothario cheating on the most beloved woman in America. The truth resides entirely in neither of those extremes, and this film is a reminder of just why JFK got elected: he was one hell of a good retail politician.
Kennedy's presidential run fell between the ascendance of Elvis Presley's star and the first appearance of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and the campaign seems to be cut from the same bolt of cloth—Senator Kennedy was greeted with the kind of mania that we associate with rock stars, not politicians. (Unfortunately for Kennedy, those most enthused about him were too young to vote.) So if Kennedy is the hero, the film needs a worthy rival for him, and it finds one in Hubert Humphrey, senator from the neighboring state of Minnesota. If the patrician New Englander can beat back Humphrey in Humphrey's own backyard, well, it just might mean that Ambassador Joe's son could go the distance.
What's amazing, looking back at this, is the handmade nature of these politics. That is, these men weren't after votes with push polls and consultants and slick 30-second ads; rather, they shook lots and lots of hands, and ate warmed-over mashed potatoes and peas at countless Kiwanis Club dinners. Humphrey very enthusiastically endorses the food, in fact; he's great at this, on the streets, wearing a homburg, greeting babies, passing out cards, lobbying for every last vote he can. He also sets up the dynamic of the Wisconsin campaign: Humphrey voters are rural, mostly farmers, and Protestant; Kennedy voters are urban and Catholic, with a sizable number of them being members of Milwaukee's Polish-American community. How this battle plays out is the subject of the film, and even though the end will be well known, it's still fascinating stuff.
A lot of the old-time campaigning is seriously cornpone, but it's a measure of how much times have changed that the crowds back then really took to it. Each candidate adopted a popular song and jimmied the lyrics, for instance—in the Humphrey camp, they put their candidate's name to the tune of Davy Crockett ("Hubert, Hubert Humphrey!"), while Kennedy's people rewrote the lyrics to High Hopes: "Everyone wants to back Jack / Jack is on the right track." It only highlights the cynicism, frequent emotional bankruptcy, and just generally bad taste in music of things like the Clintons torturing us with Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.
On some level, we've gotten so used to wall-to-wall campaign coverage that the revelatory nature of much of this may be lost to us; still, it remains a taut, tense, and dramatic tale, not merely about process, but also about the politicans' passion for victory. The filmmaking style is restrained, but is weirdly fetishistic—director Robert Drew has a thing for hands and feet, apparently. (We see Jackie twisting her gloved fingers nervously as she delivers a speech; Humphrey fingering a campaign brochure as he tries to win over a cold barn full of skeptical farmers; and the pumps, loafers, and workboots of the good people of Wisconsin as they walk in and out of the voting booths.) This was a far different age in presidential politics; you may watch this and look despairingly at the current crop of candidates for a Kennedy or even a Humphrey, but the process is now a whole lot more transparent, thanks to this fine film and the media revolution it helped to spawn.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A-
Image Transfer Review: Docurama is releasing this DVD as part of their Robert Drew Collection, which is fine; however, somebody has made a very bad choice here somewhere, relating to the image transfer. Drew's monogram appears on the bottom right of the screen throughout the run of the film; especially in light of the recent MPAA/Oscar screener flap, I appreciate wanting to protect one's copyright, but this seems a bit excessive. Worse, it's distracting, and reduces this important film to the level of some mediocre slapdash job running on an obscure cable channel for the jillionth time. That aside, the film looks a bit ragged, much as it should, given the circumstances under which it was made—the print is full of scratches and imperfections, but this only lends to the feeling of authenticity. Now get rid of that damn logo.
Image Transfer Grade: C
Audio Transfer Review: The sync sound shooting didn't always run like clockwork, and you can hear that; but as with the picture, the jagged feeling contributes to our sense of time and place, so it's hard to fault the audio transfer on that score.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasStatic menu
Scene Access with 12 cues and remote access
Cast and Crew Biographies
13 Other Trailer(s) featuring Speaking in Strings, Bob Dylan: Dont Look Back, Paul Taylor: Dancemaker, Sound and Fury, Brother's Keeper, Sophie B. Hawkins: The Cream Will Rise, Todd McFarlane: The Devil You Know, Go Tigers!, Keep The River On Your Right, Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy, Lost in La Mancha, See How They Run, The Smashing Machine
1 Feature/Episode commentary by Robert Drew and Richard Leacock
Packaging: AGI Media Packaging
30/15: 30 Years of Robert Drew Filmmaking (15m:47s), produced in 1993, is pretty much a highlight reel of Drew's thirty films made up until that time—subject matter ranges from the Kennedys to Nehru to a livestock auction, and this quick look will likely leave you hungry for more info on these various projects. There's a brief biography of Drew, and a "filmmaker statement," which provides some of his thoughts on the making of Primary.
Drew and Leacock provide a commentary track, which is pretty informative, especially about the ground rules they established for themselves: No interviews; no asking subjects to repeat themselves; always remaining as unobtrusive as possible. Occasionally they repeat themselves, but they're rightly proud of their work. How they refer to the two candidates may be an indication of their thoughts about them, too—JFK is always "Kennedy," while the senator from Minnesota is uniformly referred to as "Hubert."
Docurama also includes a catalog with many trailers for their other releases, and a panel of credits for the folks who put out the DVD. Well done, all.
Extras Grade: B
Final CommentsA crucial document in the development of both modern media and politics, Primary evokes an elegiac feeling from this distance—cinema vérité has become the stuff of stupid television like Big Brother, and politics have become so mechanized and calculated as to make even the most hopeful Mr. Smith feel cynical about Washington. But it's still a fascinating film, that helps, among other things, to return President Kennedy to his rightful status as a human being, and this disc rightly honors the tremendous contributions to our culture by the film's director, Robert Drew. Vote early and vote often for this one.
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